Expat Interview: Living in Botswana
Posted by Dannielle Noonan
At Medibroker, we speak to expats living in some really exciting locations - and James Wilson, a recent #ExpatHour participant, is no exception. James tore himself away from the wildlife in Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana to share his overseas experience in Africa with us, and explains why so many expats relocate to Botswana.
Where are you from, where have you lived previously and what brought you to Botswana?
I was born in Sydney, Australia to a British father and South African mother. At the age of 12 we headed to South Africa where I attended high school in the beautiful Kwa-Zulu Natal region. Straight after school I travelled a lot, spending time living in the UK, France and in Peru. I ended up in London for 3 years, followed by Munich for 3 years. Finally I discovered Botswana on a holiday and a good friend of mine was working at a lodge in the Okavango Delta – the experience I had on holiday there and his stories about living in the wilderness prompted me to follow my dream and find a job in Botswana!
What kind of planning was involved before the big move?
Lots of planning – and lots of good luck!
I gave my employer in Munich (a travel & tourism marketing firm) 6-months’ notice, allowing myself time to find a job and get the necessary Botswana work and residency permits. Neither of which was easy to do remotely from Germany. As I wasn’t able to find work I decided to try and register a shelf-company as an investor in Botswana. I had enough funds saved and this was the best option to allow me to get into the country with permits.
Fortunately though, one month before I was set to leave a good friend of mine from Germany returned from a work trip in Botswana with the contact details of a safari company with lodges and camps around the country. They were looking for a marketing person and interested to meet me – sounded like a dream job. After a few emails and telephone conversations I found myself in dusty Maun town in Botswana signing my contract and finalising my work permits (while the CEO shouted at noisy cockerel squawking in the street).
What’s the best thing about living in Botswana?
Lots of things – for a small country Botswana sure does punch above its weight! A strong economy, a peaceful history and a super safe country – and not just by African terms. So I feel confident about establishing roots here! It’s wonderful living in a country and working in a tourism industry which is world renowned yet small enough to feel like a close community where we can all have a positive impact.
For me the best thing about living in Botswana is definitely the wilderness. On my doorstep we have huge expanses of national parks where wildlife migrate and at any given opportunity I will head out there with my car and camera and enjoy unspoilt Africa – how it should be! In a few weeks I will head into the Okavango Delta (the largest inland delta in the world) by boat with some friends where for 5 days of camping we’ll probably see no other humans or signs of human life. Just us and the beautiful nature of Botswana!
What’s the biggest challenge that comes with being an expat in Botswana?
It’s definitely a challenge to ensure your paperwork for residency and work permits are up to date and renewed. I spent more than a year going to immigration every 3-months to get my waiver renewed as my permits were initially rejected – for no reason. Now that I have them, the process of staying on top of this is quite onerous as the country (and rightly so) try to keep a cap on expats working in the industry while a Botswana citizen could hold the same job. Fortunately my permits are now secure until 2020 and the government is definitely coming round to ensuring there is a good balance of expats in the country to help us stay internationally competitive!
How do you deal with culture shock?
I don’t feel like there is a culture shock. It was more of a culture shock living in Germany where language barriers are greater and the way of doing business is quite intense. Here in Botswana business is conducted in English and I adjusted nicely to the lifestyle. However, culturally there are things to remember in terms of respecting local culture which is important to observe if you want to integrate well. For example it is important to greet people... and properly (in Setswana, the local language). Us Europeans are sometimes too busy or stressed to worry about saying ‘hi’ or ‘how are you’ when passing people or arriving at work. Working at a lodge with 100 or more staff I spend a large portion of my day greeting lots of people – from maintenance staff to chefs to guides. I like this though and it is a great way to earn respect as an expat.
What kind of jobs do expats who come to Botswana do?
There are a large number of expats from all over the world working in the tourism industry – as I do. We need to ensure that Botswana as a tourist destination is internationally competitive which means bringing expats skills and expertise from around the globe. The tourism industry is the second biggest contributor to the GDP in Botswana and most of the revenue comes from wealthy travellers from Europe, Australasia & North America. We have potential to improve this and this is what myself and other expats in Botswana are keen to do! Mining (diamonds in particular) is the number one contributor to the economy and a number of expats work in this industry as well.
How is the standard of healthcare in Botswana? Any experiences to share?
It’s not very good. We do have very skilled doctors working in the region for emergencies. For a small annual amount, Okavango Air Rescue cover you throughout our region in case of a medical accident. However, for any kind of surgery or quality medical examination we need to go to neighbouring South Africa. Since the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, is a 1.5 hour flight away it’s nearly as easy to go to South Africa anyway.
I recently had to have minor surgery at an eye specialist. In most cities around the world it would be a routine thing to book and plan for but I had to schedule this around overseas trips and it’s quite a hassle. After the first op there were some slight complications which could have been easily rectified if I could have had it checked out but due to the fact I’m based remotely I ended up needing another operation to sort it out later on.
Our company helps cover medical insurance which is very comprehensive but that doesn’t factor in the cost of international flights.
Tell us about Chobe Game Lodge!
I’m very fortunate to live here. Chobe Game Lodge is one of the most famous lodges in Botswana. It was built in the incredible Chobe National Park in the early 70’s when tourism in Botswana was very much in its infancy. The lodge quickly became famous as a luxury property where people could come and witness the incredible number of elephant and other wildlife by boat along the Chobe River and by 4WD safari vehicles. 45 years later and tourism in the region has really grown. There are many more lodges in the region – but fortunately Chobe Game Lodge was the only property they permitted inside the National Park and so it’s a real privilege to work here.
An even greater privilege is living here! Right now if I walk to our boardwalk and deck we overlook the greatest herd of elephant in Africa. Last week we counted more than 350 elephant at one moment – Sensational! Being able to jump on a boat at any point for Africa’s best water based game-viewing is quite special. Incredible bird species, massive herds of buffalo, elephant and any number of interesting local wildlife coming to the river to drink. I’ve been to many places in Africa and I reckon if you could only spend 3-days of your life on safari ever… then I would honestly say Chobe Game Lodge would be the place to come! It’s a spectacular place!
As James' interview shows, an international medical plan that includes medical evacuation is vital for expatriates living in Botswana and other parts of Africa where high quality healthcare isn't easily accessible. The health insurance team at Medibroker can help you find a medical plan that meets your needs. Expert, impartial advice for free.